It’s quite a while since I have enjoyed a war novel as much as The Ravi Lancers (1972) by John Masters.
The book’s premise is that the Lancers, the private cavalry regiment of an Indian prince, goes to France in the autumn of 1914. (Masters says that one such Indian States Force regiment, the Jodhpur Lancers, did indeed go to the Western Front. Several Indian Army regiments were posted to France in the first months of the War, after the regular losses at Mons and before the August volunteers were in place. After 1915 over a million indians served with the Allied forces, but mostly out of Europe, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.).
The book has two central characters. One is Prince Krishna Ram, grandson of the potentate who owns the regiment; he is an anglophile, who has been taught Western ideals by an English tutor. The other is Warren Bateman, an officer in the Indian Army who is seconded to the Ravi Lancers; he loves India and Indians, and at first has a warm relationship with Krishna.
Under the stress of the terrible battles of 1915, and with the growing realisation of what modern warfare means, this relationship deteriorates. There is a traditional Indian way of doing things and a British Army way. Warren becomes more and more entrenched in his military attitudes, while Krishna comes increasingly to see the wisdom of the Indian way, with its informal durbars between officers and men, and its greater tolerance of human frailty and diversity.
John Masters (1914–1983) had been an officer in Gurkha regiments, and had served with them in India, and then in Burma during the Second World War, so he can give a convincing account of the military background. After the war he began his long series of novels about the history of the British in India (The Nightrunners of Bengal, about the Mutiny, and Bhowani Junction, about Partition, being the best-known of these). His reputation was high in the fifties and later, when he was a best-seller, but seems to have declined since his death. Few of his many books are still in print.
Masters conveys very well the shock of war. The book begins with the confident glory of cavalry on parade; this confidence does not last long against German machine guns. There are gripping pages about the Indians’ first encounters with poison gas. Military actions are described believably, as are the varied reactions of men to the stress of battle.
What made the book seem fresh, though, was the fact that the horrors of war were not there for their own sake, so much as to reveal the characters of men and of cultures.
For example, the book makes an original use of the ‘shot at dawn’ motif that has since become a cliché of Great War literature. Other novels that feature the execution of deserters do so in order to present the culture clash between military and civilian values – mostly in order to condemn the military.
In this novel the culture clash explored is not between military and civilian, but between two different military cultures. In December 1914 the shock of heavy bombardment breaks the regiment’s morale, and many of them break ranks and run away. One soldier keeps running, till he finds refuge on a French farm. A couple of months later he is found and is brought back for court martial.
Asked if he intended to return to the regiment, he replies:
‘No, Sahib [….] I was tired of the war. I wanted to leave a month before, and return to my farm at home, but the major-sahib – Bholonath – would not permit it. I had then served the rajah five years, as I promised when I joined.’
Since he had no intention to return (and will not, despite his defending officer’s efforts save himself by pretending that he had) he is declared guilty.
Before considering sentence, the colonel reminds the Indian officers who are sitting in judgement that ‘The general thinks that desertions will increase dangerously if we don’t jump hard on the ones we catch’ but the Indian officers refuse to recommend the death penalty.
In Ravi the custom was that a soldier could leave whenever he wanted to, after his agreed term of service was finished. Warren Bateman cannot understand this as a principle operating in wartime. For him, the men’s obligations changed when the regiment became part of the regular Indian Army; the punishment the court imposes (four months rigorous imprisonment, to be served in the ranks of the regiment, and then to be discharged) seems ridiculously inadequate.
There are two irreconcilable philosophies of soldiering at work here; one based on the precise and traditional gradations of feudal obligation, the other based on the imperatives of modern total war.
It is feudal India that Masters identifies with, as is shown by his presentation of Krishna Ram, the prince who combines a romantic ideal of India with a romantic notion of England, and eventually finds the two incompatible. While his representation of Indians at war is impressive, the novel lacks the depth of that other study of Indian soldiers in the War, Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters. In comparison with Anand’s Indians, those imagined by Masters are like characters in a novel. But it is a novel worth reading.
Masters later wrote a trilogy of thick novels about the First World War. I’ve got myself a copy of the first volume, Now, God Be Thanked (1979) and will report back on it later.